What’s Next: Career Paths for Emerging Landscape Architects

Work and Days Symposium Participants / Katie Black and Colin Curley
Work and Days Symposium Participants / Katie Black and Colin Curley

This time of year design students everywhere are asking themselves, “What’s next?” Whether weighing summer options or searching for a job post-graduation, the closing of the spring semester is  a critical moment filled with the excitement and apprehension of choosing the right path. While students can draw on many traditional sources for advice, a recent symposium at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design sought to offer a deeper forum, not just about careers, but rather on “what the role of the designer is, can, and should be in the twenty-first century.”

The Work & Days symposium mined the broader field of landscape architecture, assembling 17 panelists who represent the “realistic breadth of jobs available to emerging landscape designers.” Career paths range from start-ups to large firms, publishing, conservation, interdisciplinary work, industrial and structural engineering, socially-oriented practice, and academia. The idea for the event originated with master’s of landscape architecture students Katie Black and Colin Curley. The duo “recognized the increasing agency and expansion of landscape and its allied professions,” and yet, a lack of honest discussion about the highs and lows of these varying career paths.

Although each 10-minute presentation had its own distinct story, many themes resonated across speakers. One common theme throughout the day was the pros and cons of the straight versus the meandering path. Ellen Nieses, an adjunct landscape architecture professor at PennDesign, kicked off the presentations listing the 30-plus jobs she had held before coming to landscape architecture. As an academic and practitioner, Nieses drew on her diverse experiences outside of the world of landscape “to meet people designers don’t usually meet and go places designers don’t always go,” expanding the reach of the profession as she seeks to “see big stuff happen.” However, she admits her approach has a “fruition problem,” in that big paradigm-shifting projects are slow, hard to complete, and thus result in little built work.

With 16 years of practice at Olin, Richard Roark, ASLA, offered students a different but complementary perspective, showing how a landscape architect can evolve at one firm. His more linear career in landscape architecture had allowed room for him to grow from a young student protester to a partner at Olin leading community-based projects such as the Philadelphia Rail Park and Detroit’s Eastern Market. Roark sees these projects as “political dialogue,” requiring “an act of collaborative intelligence.”

For careers outside of academia and private practice, many speakers emphasized the valuable managerial skills and inquisitive instincts learned through design education. Nette Compton stressed the importance of effective “design translation” in her ascension to the position of director of green infrastructure at the New York City parks department and her current role as the senior director of ParkCentral and city park development at The Trust for Public Land.

Regardless of their career choices, many presenters acknowledged and even celebrated the inevitable role of serendipity. For Aaron Kelley, Assoc. ASLA, an associate at James Corner Field Operations, this meant landing his first design job while in line for a coffee, but for others, this meant bouncing back from unexpected professional and personal challenges. Olin CEO Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, spoke candidly about these “bumps” in her own life, adding that “the disorienting dilemma is an important moment — use it wisely.”

While the symposium highlighted the range of possible professional pathways for students to consider, it also revealed that the question of “what next” is not just reserved students, but is an ongoing question for the discipline of landscape architecture.

This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

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